When They See Us: Netflix essential watching
Ava DuVernay's series about the Central Park Five is officially the most watched show on US Netflix. Here's everything you need to know about the stirring true story
Two weeks after the show's release, Netflix tweeted that the show officially became the most watched series on the platform in the US every day between 31 May and 12 June. Famously, the streaming service is reluctant to release detailed data, but the statistic seems to make sense when taking stock of the severity of what's being represented.
What's When They See Us about?
Caleel Harris in When They See Us
The four-part series documents the true story of five African American and Latino teenage boys who were wrongfully accused and convicted of the rape and attempted murder of 28-year-old Trisha Meili (referred to as 'the Central Park Jogger'). Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana were individually questioned for over 40 hours without food, water, lawyers or parents, and coerced into admitting to crimes they didn't commit.
The show follows the young men from the day of the attack until the day the Central Park Five, as the boys came to be known, were exonerated after the assailant confessed to the crime in 2002. By this point, the boys had spent over 10 years in prison.
DuVernay's direction focuses on the primal emotion of the case, from the boys fighting for the truth in their innocent adolescence, their parents fighting against brick wall after brick wall, and the persecutors determined to fabricate their own truth. The show's title highlights the visceral agenda – to show a wakeup call, an urgent reminder of what lurks in the shadows and what happens when the truth is hidden for too long.
Who's involved in When They See Us?
Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us
The project is spearheaded by Ava DuVernay, a fearless filmmaker who has been putting vital stories of injustice and social retribution on screen for some years now. With her 2014 film Selma, DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, as well as the first black female director to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director.
Since then, DuVernay was nominated once more for an Oscar for her Netflix documentary 13th in 2016 – and proved her talents in antipodal genres too when she directed the Disney fantasy A Wrinkle in Time in 2018. Supporting DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro are among the show's executive producers.
In terms of actors, When They See Us casts a lot of fresh faces: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse and Marquis Rodriguez play Kevin, Antron, Yusef and Raymond respectively in their youth. While a different set of actors plays the men as they grow up, Jharrel Jerome (recognisable from Barry Jenkins' Moonlight) plays Korey Wise, the fifth boy, at both ages.
Vera Farmiga and Felicity Huffman star as Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein – the two prosecutors on the case who, since When They See Us aired, have been dropped from book deals and teaching positions at Columbia University.
Why is When They See Us worth watching?
As the nominations for this year's Emmy awards are just around the corner, the competition is hotting up and When They See Us is one of the frontrunners on everyone's minds. DuVernay retells the story with piercing clarity and emotion – it's telling that, although this story has been making headlines for 30 years now, it's only with her version that tangible change has come into effect.
It's this unflinching dedication to the gaps of truth that punished these boys, the determined fight for what's right, and the loyalty to every person who was wronged in this case, that makes When They See Us truly essential viewing.
What happened to these boys, reflecting systemic racism and flawed police procedures, could still happen to others. What happened to Trisha Meili did in fact happen to eight other women during that period – and the horror of false conviction means that the true assailants continue to harm innocent people.
It's a particularly sensitive portrayal of the story, especially as it doesn't shy away from Donald Trump's involvement – at the time of the trial, Trump paid $120,000 for full-page adverts in national newspapers advocating for the return of the death penalty to punish the assailants. Sine the show's airing, the US president has said: 'You had people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt'.
When They See Us provides a wake up call, a call to arms, a brave and bold portrait of a case that reflects the still heterogenous and dubious nature of our justice system and the trust we place in each other. It's a must-watch for everyone, to learn about the past, and to pave a better future.
When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix now.